DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton
CAST: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito
Disney’s iconic 1941 animated feature, Dumbo, was 64 minutes long. Many consider the film to be perfect. In comparison, the 2019 remake clocks in at 112 minutes. The extra time is spent expanding the big-eared elephant’s story and adding (a lot) more human involvement.
Before criticizing these Disney live-action reboots, let’s ask ourselves, “How good can they actually be?” But also, “If they can only be so good, then why are they getting made in the first place?” More than any other recent remake, Tim Burton’s Dumbo is meant for children. Largely because it features children as its main characters. As for the first question that was posed, I think this movie, itself, is the answer–at least in Dumbo’s case.
In 1919, young brother and sister Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Milly Farrier (Nico Parker) are awaiting the return of their father Holt (Colin Farrell) who was overseas fighting in the War. Their mother has just died from the Spanish influenza and Holt doesn’t know how to talk to or connect with his kids like she did. Milly is interested in science, and Burton always makes sure that we know this. While Joe is…there.
Holt and his kids travel with the Medici Brothers Circus, headed by the spunky Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Medici has just purchased a pregnant elephant, Jumbo, who eventually gives birth to our titular character. Jumbo eventually gets sold due to her violent behavior while defending her son when he gets ridiculed. Dumbo, just like in the cartoon, has ginormous ears which enable him to fly. The kids help him realize his talent, taking on the role previously held by Timothy the mouse, but nobody believes them. That is, until he actually does it.
This point comes at the very end of the original film as its denouement, but here it’s the climax–simply the launching point for the last half of the story. Because of Dumbo’s talents, Medici’s small traveling circus becomes famous and he’s offered a partnership by theme park mogul, V.A. Vandemere (Michael Keaton), an
eccentric tycoon who owns the utopian Dreamland amusement park futuristic even by today’s standards and where Burton can really stretch his wings with set vision. Medici and his crew all move up to New York to join Vandemere’s circus. Where the original Dumbo didn’t
really have any villain (society in general was the antagonist), this remake has an actual bad guy. His arc is a slow build and we’re not exactly sure if he’s completely unlikable at first, but Vandevere ultimately has his own plans for Dumbo. He wants his trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green), to ride the elephant while he’s flying–something he’s never done before. Dumbo’s desire to succeed is driven by his hope that he will earn the circus enough money to afford to buy his mother back. You could argue that Burton had to be the guy behind this project.
Anyone else would have created a world, no doubt, inspired by circus cliches and generic carnival ethos, but lacking any sort of originality. Instead, the director gets inventive with his setting, even within the confines of Medici’s run-ofthe-mill circus, but deliciously so when showcasing Vandemere’s Dreamland–a quasi-steampunk futuristic theme park that rivals no other. It’s the landscape that Disney’s very own Tomorrowland flop promised us it would deliver.
Despite himself, Burton may still not have created the magical atmosphere of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure or Edward Scissorhands–largely due to his unfortunate shift to gratuitous CGI–but the world inside Dumbo is just as inventive. He’s also never really worked with a script this saccharine and trite. And for what it’s worth, Burton does really well within the confines he’s given.
In the 1941 film, there weren’t really any human characters. However, Burton’s movie implements humans and makes them the catalyst for every event. Which is a good idea, in theory. But if you’re going to suddenly bring humans into the picture, you have to let them breathe. These people don’t ever feel real. They feel like cringe-worthy Hallmark Channel archetypes delivering equally eye-rolling dialogue. Very much falling in line with the preachy and disingenuously feel-good stories so prevalent in today’s era, the film’s depth is either fabricated or not there at all. In a movie that tries so hard to be profound, we can’t help but notice how little it makes us feel.
Yet, we still get goosebumps when Dumbo flies, and teary-eyed when he gets separated from his mother–feelings the original film evoked as well, even if on a purer level, which proves that maybe we don’t need the humans there after all. However, there was a talking mouse to serve as an audience surrogate in the original. Maybe the extra characters and 48 minutes of runtime isn’t as necessary as the filmmaker thought.
How is it that the biggest emotions come from CGI characters? For one, the acting isn’t great–perhaps Burton’s biggest flaw here. Between trying to decipher what Keaton’s accent is supposed to be and whether he’s trying to be funny or sinister, his performance is distracting. He has conviction as the villain, but is so over-the-top that his idiosyncrasies aren’t believable in the slightest. Likewise, Farrell gives probably the worst performance of his career. At times we can’t tell if he’s delivering his lines poorly or if the dialogue is just that atrocious.
The two performers who stand out in a good way out are DeVito and Green the only two actors who actually seem like they’re immersed in this film universe, not merely acting with the conscious thought of “I’m acting!” Ehren Kruger’s screenplay isn’t all bad. While being flooded with truisms, mediocre themes, and paper-thin characters (and dialogue made worse by bland performances), Dumbo’s macro story does a pretty good job expanding within the limitations of the preexisting material. And we have to remember, Tim Burton’s live-action version is targeted at children. And considering that, it does a pretty good job accomplishing that objective. However, 1941’s Dumbo showed the world how much emotional investment we can have in animals (and ones that don’t even talk, no ess). Disney’s first two animated films (we’re excluding the anthology concept film Fantasia) featured human characters, but Dumbo opened the door for the potential of a plethora of different ideas involving non-humans, its influence still felt in modern times with the likes of Finding Nemo, Zootopia, and How to Train Your Dragon. The inclusion of humans is not only evidence that this “updated” Dumbo misses the point of the original, but that perhaps nearly 80 years of technology in cinema has made us forget about why that technology exists in the first place–to connect us with and bring us closer to the emotional impact of a story–instead focusing only on how it makes a movie look on the surface.